The Meaning Of "Offense/Defense: There's Only A Risk"

Debaters say a lot of things in debates that are not arguments in themselves but which contain cues that trigger meaning in the minds of their audience (their opponents and, most importantly, the judge). As Roy discussed in an article about “Defense”, one such cue is used to frame the way the judge approaches his or her evaluation of the debate. In many 2NRs or 2ARs, the debater starts with something like this:

Evaluate this debate through an offense/defense paradigm—they only have defense so there’s only a risk that we outweigh.

In many cases, the opposing team does not refute this framing of the debate. In a few cases, they respond by insisting that the judge not evaluate the debate using an offense/defense paradigm and then extend their defensive arguments.

But what does it mean to evaluate a debate using the “offense/defense paradigm?” Distinguishing between offensive and defensive arguments is easy enough; categorizing arguments this way is indeed one of the most helpful ways for new debaters to conceptualize a round. Put most simply, offensive arguments are those that provide a reason to vote for you while defensive arguments are those that provide a reason not to vote against you. Easy enough.

Deploying this distinction between offensive and defensive arguments as a decision-making calculus, however, is a little more complicated. As Roy argues, too many judges use “they’ve only got defense” as an excuse not to make judgments about each teams’ arguments. If the negative goes for a disadvantage and the affirmative goes for “this disadvantage does not make sense (because it is missing internal links, is empirically denied, links more to the status quo than our plan, etc.)”, it is nonsensical for the negative to implore the judge to employ an offense-defense paradigm and therefore exclude consideration of the affirmative’s responses to the disadvantage.

“Offense/defense—there’s only a risk” is not a reason to only evaluate offensive arguments. Offense/defense is a way of categorizing arguments, not resolving them. In the vast majority of debates, it does not provide any helpful guidance for judges as they evaluate the two teams’ arguments.

Instead of reciting this line at the top of the 2NR or 2AR, debaters should explicitly compare the offensive and defensive arguments made by both sides. If one’s best shot of winning is to minimize the importance of defensive arguments against a high-magnitude impact, one should make those arguments explicitly instead of relying on the “offense/defense” crutch. Separating out offensive from defensive arguments is a helpful way to approach a rebuttal, but it does not obviate the need for debaters to win their framing of the impacts… it is a starting point, not the destination.

This should seem obvious to many readers, but it is important to unpack the meanings that we imbue upon certain phrases. “Offense/defense—there’s only a risk” is by no means the only instance in which a few words have come to mean much more than that, but it is certainly one of the most frequently used.

The bottom line is that debaters should strive to make their impact arguments and framing of debates more sophisticated and judges should be leery of assigning meaning to utterances that do not fully communicate a complete argument.